One weeknight in the spring of 2016, Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, walked the floor of his car factory in Fremont, California. He was not alone.
On his arm was an attractive brunette wearing a dress and heels that clacked as they strolled across the gleaming white floors. Neither wore protective gear, such as a hard hat or glasses, as they toured the facility. A puzzled factory worker watched the pair enter a conference room where a romantic dinner for two complete with tablecloth awaited them.
The 5.3-million-square-foot Fremont factory, where Tesla builds its all-electric cars, is one of the world’s most advanced automotive production facilities, employing about 10,000 people. It’s also been the center of drama as Tesla struggles to meet demand for its vehicles.
But for Musk, Tesla is a personal kingdom where the boundaries of home and work are blurred and the method in the madness is never entirely clear.
“Elon basically does what he wants, whenever he wants,” the person who witnessed the apparent date told Business Insider.
To some who work at Tesla, that’s fine. Musk has a loyal following of employees who believe that if he asks them to do the impossible, they can do it. At 47, Musk has defied the skeptics and dragged electric cars into reality through the force of will, grit, and stubbornness. Those who work for Musk liken it to a drug.
“My favorite thing about the job is to take that thing that seemed impossible and blow it up,” said Marco Batra, a six-year Tesla veteran and the manager of field service operations.
Tesla employees also said they love the company’s mission: making beautiful electric cars and solar products, healing the earth, and disrupting the old world along the way. It’s a noble cause that inspires many to give it their all.
“This is the future,” said Branton Phillips, a material handler for Tesla Production Control at the Fremont facility. “I like the whole image, what we’re doing, the mission. We’re making history.”
It’s exactly the type of hungry “startup culture” that larger, more established corporations are forever striving for.
And it might also be Tesla’s biggest weakness. The scrappy, feel-good company, built in Musk’s image, also bears many of his flaws — a place where long hours, chaos, callousness, and contradictions can grind workers down, many employees said.
In an effort to hit the lofty delivery goals set by Musk, Tesla has burned through a stunning trove of cash and materials— $3.4 billion in 2017 and another $1.05 billion in the first quarter of this year — while posting record losses. The rate of spending appears to be slowing, but many fear the company could still run out of money before the end of the year. Meanwhile, Musk has already backtracked and abandoned a highly public, and always a bit unlikely, attempt to change the company’s finances by taking the company private, an idea he revealed in an ill-advised tweet.
Now, as pressure mounts, Musk’s management style is under scrutiny, and a growing number of employees and investors are wondering whether it’s time for the company to grow up.
Business Insider spoke with 42 Tesla employees to learn what it’s like working for one of the world’s most ambitious and controversial companies.
All the people we spoke with are either currently employed by Tesla or have been in the past year. They’ve held a variety of jobs, from entry level to managers, in engineering, production, and sales, at the Fremont headquarters and factory, the “Gigafactory” in Nevada and other locations. Some requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press, while others were authorized by Tesla and spoke with us in unmonitored, private conversations.
Long hours, busy toilets
Jonathan Galescu, a welder who works on the Tesla Model X car, starts his shift at 5:50 p.m. and spends the next 10 to 12 hours fixing body problems on cars.
Tesla tests and fixes cars on the assembly line as they’re being built. Galescu spends his shift walking — sometimes running — alongside the cars and welding as he goes, he said.
Galescu started at Tesla four years ago and has seen many idealists crash headfirst into the realities of working there.
“People quit within the first two hours, people quit after a week,” Galescu said. “There was one guy who was fresh out of high school, 18 years old, never had a job before and was excited to work: ‘I want to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day!’ By about the fifth day, he was on the floor crying.” The guy quit soon after.
Galescu is part of a group pushing to bring a union into Tesla. He sounds exhausted and more than a little fed up, exactly what you’d expect from someone who believes he’s worked too many hours in unfair conditions.
Some 260 miles away, at Tesla’s 4.9-million-square-foot Gigafactory, insiders describe a loud hive of activity.
Bathrooms at the facility — which employs over 2,400 people and could eventually house 10,000 — are scarce, often messy, and the lines to use them can be long, several employees told us.
Once, someone recounted, the men’s bathroom was so busy that an employee put toilet paper down next to a clogged toilet and defecated right there.
Yet many employees quickly adapt to the giant facility. “Yeah, you don’t try and use the bathroom 15 minutes before a shift changes,” George Stewart, a battery production lead at the Gigafactory, said, laughing. He called the situation no big deal. “The lunch room feels like high school it’s so crowded,” he added.
The work is fast-paced and unpredictable. Making the numbers supersedes everything. Employees can be drafted without warning and put on an unfamiliar production line with a few minutes of training. During “burst builds” the production system is revved up to test whether it can perform at a certain rate.
The happiest Tesla employees, including Stewart, described themselves as workaholic types who want to work 70-plus hours a week.
“You get a bunch of passionate, competitive people in the room — it’s almost like this self-inflicted, bar-raising behavior,” Barta, the field manager, said. He puts in so many hours he’s been known to sleep overnight at work.
And some hourly production workers said Tesla was an easier and more lucrative job than their alternatives.
“A lot of people say it’s hard here, but I started out doing tile at minimum wage, carrying 50- to 60-pound boxes up a flight a stairs,” Miguel Carrera, a manufacturing tech lead, said. He voluntarily works extra shifts to pull 70 hours a week in Tesla’s outdoor makeshift Model 3 production area in Fremont. “This is nothing.”
He went on: “Two years ago I was sleeping in a car. I’ve been here two years now, and I’m getting ready to buy a house. A lot of things have come together for me from this company, for me putting in the hours. To me, this is the best company ever.”
But to really understand Tesla, you have to understand how employees feel about their larger-than-life leader.
The ‘cult of Elon’
It’s time for the quarterly all-hands meeting, and people are standing around nervously like groupies waiting for a glimpse of Musk, their famous CEO. As he walks to the front of the room, employees burst into vigorous applause.
“There’s a big cult-like following for Elon,” one software engineer said. “No company have I worked for, in our quarterly meetings, do you clap when a CEO walks into the podium. So that’s just something that people do at Tesla.”
Born and raised in South Africa, Musk came to the US during his college years and soon found success as one of the original members of the “PayPal mafia,” the group of founders who created the electronic-payment system. In 2008, when electric cars were still considered an oddity for tree huggers, Musk produced the beautiful Roadster. Not only was it electric, it was fast. In 2012, Tesla made more waves with its Model S luxury sedan. And today, Tesla is challenging the industry with its mass-market Model 3.
His other job, as CEO of rocket company SpaceX, which ushered in the commercial space industry and aims to bring humans to Mars, helped catapult him to rock-star status worldwide.
At Tesla, Musk can be seen anywhere and everywhere — standing behind a production worker, peering at a robot, or dressed in protective garb in the clean room. Some of his admirers post themselves in special spots in the factory to catch a glimpse of him walking by with his senior staff in tow.
At 6-foot-2, with broad shoulders, Musk is an imposing man. “I ran into him a couple times. He’s like this force field,” a former internal communications employee said. “You could almost see the air parting.”
Employees described him as everything from aloof and intimidating to friendly and emotional. His discussions are littered with f-bombs, and he’s been known to give bear hugs to production workers when the company reaches a milestone.
Musk works so many hours in Tesla’s 24/7 production world that virtually everyone has a story about finding him with pillow and blanket asleep somewhere — on the factory floor, under a desk, in a conference room. He recently said in an interview that he was so exhausted from this past year at Tesla that he sometimes uses the sleep aid Ambien.
Some people said they were afraid of Musk, adding that their bosses have warned them not to go near him or take his picture, though he has been known to graciously pose for selfies.
If you can convince Musk you have an idea that will benefit Tesla, he won’t hesitate to make it happen, said one field manager, who told Business Insider that he’s met with Musk on several occasions.
A human can do the job faster than a robot? The robot will vanish, said Juliese Batiste, a Model 3 production lead. When the ergonomics team wanted to demo wearable chairs that allow production workers to sit while working, Musk gave the nod, said Mike Kirschner, a senior ergonomics program manager.
But Musk is always 10 steps ahead, the field manager said, forcing you to think faster and bigger than you would otherwise.
That’s the thing about Musk. He promises the impossible, and often pulls it off. He’s taken two companies in capital-intensive industries with incredibly high barriers to entry — electric cars and space transportation — and turned them into viable businesses.
By demanding so much, Musk leads people to exceed their own expectations and create new ways of accomplishing tasks.
“We came up with stuff that, when we first thought of it on paper, it wasn’t possible. And Elon’s pushing does get you there,” a mechanical engineer said.
A software engineer said: “Elon is an amazing visionary. He was so right about what five years or 10 years should look like and what is possible. He is super inspiring. He challenges people and pushes them to do things they don’t think they can do and is really great in some ways.”
But, people told us, there’s a cost for pushing people so hard.
‘The Tesla life’
Some employees call the work grind “the Tesla life,” meaning you’re expected to put your life on hold at crunch time, giving everything you’ve got to the company.
In fairness, that’s not so different from the expectation at other Silicon Valley tech firms, from startups to the giants.
Yet, at Tesla, crunch time never seems to cease. “Elon tells you: ‘This is what we’re doing. We’re launching this today or in two weeks.’ If it comes from the CEO and he makes this public, you have to do it,” a software engineer said.
The long, unpredictable hours affect every corner of Tesla’s operations, from software and mechanical engineers to the folks in solar sales or on the production line.
At first there’s a certain thrill to it. The goal is to create things that have never been done before.
“They are constantly introducing new ideas, new ways of doing things,” one mechanical engineer said. “It’s like a drug that you can’t see yourself living without. You know it’s sad, but you’re enjoying it so much because you’re being told you’re changing the world and your contributions matter.”
But Musk’s deadlines can also seem random, even mean-spirited, to those tasked with achieving them.
“He’d order a project and we’d say, ‘We need 10 weeks,’ and he’d say, ‘You get six.’ And then two weeks later, ‘We need it two weeks earlier than that,’ so you end up with four, just to hit a number. It’s an impossible workload. They’re burning people out like crazy,” the mechanical engineer said.
Tesla’s work-life balance scored 2.6 out of 5, according to Glassdoor user reviews, far lower than other car companies. And the average employee tenure at Tesla is 2.1 years, which is at the low end compared to other tech companies such as Apple, where the average tenure is five years, according to data gathered by LinkedIn.
A fear of getting fired also permeates the atmosphere. Musk has been known on occasion to “fire people on the spot,” one mechanical engineer said. A production-line worker spoke of a whole team that was dismissed. Then there were the June layoffs at Telsa that impacted solar-energy employees, who were called into a prework conference call and laid off en masse during the call.
“I had a running joke with a buddy of mine on my team,” one solar salesperson said. “Every time we saw each other we would grin and say, ‘Oh, what a surprise that I see you this time! I thought one of us would be fired by now.”
Many employees said they believed Musk’s heart was in the right place, but, as with other “geniuses of the world,” he is “not the best leader,” as one put it.
Others said that working at Tesla means subscribing to Musk’s vision — without exception.
“You’re not there to be creative. You’re there to fulfill his mission,” a software engineer said. “If you don’t understand that and you’re talking about your feelings, you’re probably going to get fired.”
A former VP who reported to him said, “He is terrible, terrible at execution and terrible at management. The entire management structure at Tesla is impotent and terrible. There are exceptions, but, on average, most managers at Tesla have no idea what they’re doing.”
For some people, Musk’s “open inbox” policy, intended to show the CEO’s receptiveness to feedback, is a prime example.
The CEO invites any employee, at any level, to write him directly with thoughts or concerns. A lot of employees said they love this.
“Tesla is open to communication lines to all levels of management,” Cheryl Blackwell, a security manager for Tesla’s Buffalo, New York, facility, said. “There is no chain of command. I never feel like I can’t go to a person [with ideas].”
But some complained this system could do more harm than good. Another former executive claimed that Musk would forward employee emails to the VP in charge with a simple three-letter directive: “WTF.” Panicked recipients would stop what they were doing and research the issue.
“It would cause huge scrambles, and you would spend days chasing down some issue that wasn’t a real problem,” this person said. “Giving people a license to email Elon created a bunch of problems with everyday work. There’s a reason why the chain of command exists.”
Fear of the tweet
If Musk’s WTF emails can trigger a fire drill, it’s nothing compared to his tweets.
With his outspoken personality and an itchy trigger finger, Musk routinely picks public fights and makes promises about all sorts of amazing new products, features, or milestones.
Sometimes his tweets land him and the company in serious trouble, such as the infamous “funding secured” tweet, which has led to an SEC investigation.
And much of the time, these public pronouncements are made before Tesla employees, including the people directly responsible for the tasks, have been informed. After a tweet, some employees look at each other, exasperated, and say, “Oh, so that’s what we’re doing now?”
For instance, in June Musk fired off several tweets boasting about the specs for an electric pickup. The level of detail Musk announced was a surprise to some insiders.
A manufacturing employee recalls another incident: “One of the guys I worked with was part of the calculations for car performance, and he’d come in the morning, just shake his head, and be, like, ‘Did you see Elon’s last tweet? He wants to add rockets to the car now.’ Just shaking his head, like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Sure enough, on June 5, during Tesla’s annual shareholder meeting, Musk really did announce that Tesla’s engineers would have to put rocket thrusters on the new version of the Roadster, set to hit the market in 2020. He also promised that some Model 3 customers would get their cars months faster than the official delivery time on Tesla’s website.
Some employees defended Musk’s tweet about going private, praising it as part of the CEO’s commitment to transparency. But the unpredictability of Musk’s comments on Twitter has caused some members of the company’s board to urge him to refrain from tweeting, The New York Times has reported.
When asked about Musk’s management style, Tesla pointed to its mission. “What Tesla is doing is incredibly difficult, as evidenced by the fact that Ford is the only other US car company to never have gone bankrupt,” a Tesla representative said.
To judge Musk’s effectiveness, Tesla said to look at his history. He drafted a master plan in 2006 to build a sports car, use that money to build a more affordable car — the Model 3 — and offer zero-emission energy products.
The safety zone
Some workers say they’re worried about more than just burnout because of Tesla’s unconventional operations.
Tesla’s factory safety record is one of its most controversial issues. In April, The Center for Investigative Reporting reported that Tesla’s total injury rate was significantly higher than the industrywide rate in 2016, the latest year for which data was available.
Factories can be dangerous places, and Tesla said its record isn’t perfect. But a representative said its past years’ record no longer reflects the company.
“There should be absolutely no question that we care deeply about the well-being of our employees and that we try our absolute hardest to do the right thing and to fail less often,” the representative said. “When it comes to safety, our record is on par with other automotive companies, and we improve with each passing month and will keep doing so until we have the safest factories in the world by far.”
An engineer at the Gigafactory said he believed that Tesla’s reputation for poor safety was more like a hangover from its earlier days, and said today the company has “put in safety systems.”
Several other current employees told us the same. While injuries may happen, safety, particularly over the past year, has been a major emphasis, with workers getting constant reminders, training, and new procedures.
A software engineer said the engineering managers who work on the production lines are “conscientious people” who care deeply about the workers and are always looking for ways to improve the process.
For instance, the Model 3 production lines, the latest to be built, include fancy ergonomics adjustments. Employees can wear sensor suits that track their movements to minimize repetitive stress injuries. Workstations can be raised up or moved about to adjust to the worker, Crystal Spates, a Model 3 production manager, said.
The company has hired six athletic trainers to help workers who complain of aches and pains, showing them stretches, exercises, how to use athletic tape, and more, Kirschner said.
Still, some of the blue-collar workers we spoke with said they witnessed accidents in the years they worked there, or had accidents of their own, ranging from minor to serious. Phillips, who is among the employees pushing for a union, said in his four years at the company he has witnessed “one, two, three, four stretchers in the last couple of years come by me.”
There’s some evidence to back his claims. A report from the Fremont Police Department, received by Business Insider, showed more than 300 911 calls made from the Fremont facility between January 2016 and March 2018 involving a wide variety of alleged issues, such as intruders on the property and suicide threats.
Of those 300 calls, 11 involved claims of accidents and six involved claims of accidents with “no visible injury.”
That compares to nine 911 calls during the same period — including claims of accidents and a trash fire — at General Motor’s 1,200-employee, 4.3-million-square-foot factory in Lake Orion, Michigan, which manufacturers its electric competitor, the Chevy Bolt EV. These factories are not identical, so there may be many reasons the number of 911 calls differs between the two. (For details on the 911 calls, see the related graphic below.)
Several people said they believed one reason for Tesla’s murky reputation is that it hires a lot of workers with no previous factory experience and trains them internally. We talked to factory workers with backgrounds from construction to home finance.
Employees said such a workforce helps Tesla think outside the box. But it has drawbacks.
“In general, every factory is a little dangerous, especially if you have a workforce not used to a manufacturing setting and you’re getting people off the streets who may have been at McDonald’s or Starbucks,” Kirschner said. So Tesla drills them on safety procedures, he said.
If an incident happens, employees are instructed to call internal security and wait for someone to arrive. Security personnel administer first aid, if needed, or take the person to a company nurse. The nurse may call 911.
The disturbing part for Phillips is that “whatever is happening with them, believe it or not, the line continues.”
Although Tesla’s production line always stops in order to remove the person from harm’s way and call for medical attention, the line does return to business. In other industrial settings, if the accident is serious enough, workers who see the incident could be sent home, Phillips asserts. “Because nobody can keep their mind on their work when they’ve seen something terrible happen to somebody,” he said.
911 calls made to Tesla’s Fremont factory versus GM’s Lake Orion factory
Time to grow up?
While Tesla’s happiest employees love the company like a second family, not everyone feels that way. Tesla is facing several lawsuits from employees alleging safety violations, harassment, and more. Tesla denies the validity of the lawsuits, making counter allegations against the people suing and the circumstances cited in their suits.
Meanwhile, two Gigafactory employees are attempting to register as official whistleblowers with the SEC, one of whom Tesla is suing on claims of hacking. And some employees, like Galescu and Phillips, are trying to unionize.
If things don’t go Tesla’s way, it could find itself mandated by courts or outside influences to make all sorts of changes.
Those who have worked closely with Musk said that the company doesn’t have to be battered that way. The solution may be simpler: Have Musk remain as the visionary strategist but assign day-to-day operations to a capable, empowered COO, much like SpaceX has in Gwynne Shotwell.
“SpaceX had Gwyn — Tesla never had a COO,” a former VP said. Musk “was never able to relinquish control.” So he has been doing what he’s famous for doing: “He micromanaged.”
Finding a COO that could do the job without running afoul of Musk and getting fired can’t happen unless Musk himself sees the light.
Just as with other companies Musk has founded, Tesla’s board is stacked with Musk loyalists, including his brother, Kimbal Musk; longtime friend and financial backer and VC Steve Jurvetson; and early Tesla investor Antonio Gracias. Tesla said the latter two and the rest of the board qualify as independent directors, according to NASDAQ rules. But both of them have also invested in other Musk companies, such as SpaceX and SolarCity.
After the “funding secured” tweet fiasco, the board may have become more motivated to find a qualified No. 2, whether Musk is on board or not, sources told The New York Times.
As one mechanical engineer said of Musk and Tesla, “I respect the guy [but] I think the best thing that he could do is step away from the CEO position and be the innovator. But he still thinks of it as a startup.”
And with 40,000 employees, it isn’t. “I’m sorry — it’s got to mature,” the engineer added. “It’s got to be a company.”
For those giving their all for the mission, they say the work, sweat, and tears are worth it.
“Tesla is doing things that not a lot of people are doing. We’re taking on challenges because we want to accelerate the world into sustainable energy,” Jennifer Lew, a robotics engineering manager in Fremont, said. “If you are thinking about joining Tesla and are prepared for the intense work, I can say it’s been a really good experience. All the challenges of ramping up these production lines? I couldn’t have done that somewhere else.”
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